It seems like at least once every few months or so, some video game or another is brought under fire by hordes of angry parents and/or politicians who, despite not really knowing much of anything about the content of the game in question, want it completely banned for one reason or another. Now, the GTA: San Andreas Â“Hot CoffeeÂ” thing has been beaten to death. You know it, I know it, and every journalist who's written about it since a week after the whole thing blew up sure as hell knows it. So in a sort of pseudo-celebration of San Andreas being the latest video game causing your grandmother to pray for your soul every Sunday morning, I've put together a little piece on some of the most controversial video games ever released, as well as a bit of their history and why they were so darn evil in their hey-day. So without further ado, let's corrupt some children, shall we?
Game: Death Race
Year released: 1976
This puppy is known as the father of controversial video games and, to be honest, it's extremely tame compared to the kind of stuff we've seen in the last decade or so. Death Race was based on the movie Death Race 2000, and the purpose of the game was to run over as many gremlins as possible within a given amount of time. After each successful squash, an 'X' would take the place of the gremlin on the screen.
This, apparently, was a very evil thing. GameSpot says that the game "was so aggressively rejected by the public that shortly after its release, Exidy pulled the game off store shelves." Sound familiar, GTA fans? Completely removing a game from retail doesn't happen too often, but when it does, it often has to do with how far the realistic graphics go in depicting one form of violence or another.
However, the reason Death Race was so publicly lambasted had nothing to do with the graphics, which were simple black-and-white characters plotted on the screen; it actually had to do with the sound effects, one in particular. Steven Kent, author of The Ultimate History of Video Games, says "What got everyone upset about Death Race was that you heard this little 'ahhhk' when the person got hit, and a little gravestone came up." The controversy even made 60 Minutes!
Game: Custer's Revenge
Platform: Atari 2600
Developer: Mystique/American Multiple Images
Year released: 1983
There aren't many gamers around who haven't heard of this one, and most of you have probably emulated it in some completely legal fashion to see if what you've heard could possibly be true. Make no mistake, my fellow gamers... this game was truly Custer's last stand.
In Custer's Revenge, the player's avatar was good ol' General Custer himself, and the goal was to rape and plunder as many Native American women as you possibly could. Yes, it's true. You would dash across the screen to the right, away from fearsome enemy arrows, eventually reaching a Native American woman tied helplessly to a pole. Custer would then proceed to have his way with her (for points that actually contributed to the player's high score, I might add) before casually proceeding to the next stage. Rinse and repeat.
This game, like so many controversial titles to follow, was denounced to its graphic nature. Custer would literally remove his member, which was obscenely erect, (prerequisite Atari jaggies and all) and rape the helpless woman. Of course, according to American Multiple Images, the act was "mutually consenting." Well of course! I mean, why else would she have... been tied... to a pole...?
Atari eventually filed suit against AMI and Mystique for "wrongful association" over Custer's Revenge, but this apparently wasn't enough to stop the racy developer and publisher duo from releasing two other X-rated titles on the Atari 2600: Bachelor Party, where you played a horny guy (sorry for the redundancy) who had to hit on as many women as possible, and Beat 'Em and Eat 'Em. And that's all I have to say about that.
Game: Night Trap
Platform: Sega CD
Developer: Digital Pictures
Year released: 1992
This game is actually one of the most misunderstood of our controversial bunch. The FMV-based game asked the player to protect nightgown-clad co-eds spending the night together in a large house allegedly haunted by vampires. Pillow fights, braiding hair, giggling over guys... seemingly innocent, right? Well actually, it was.
Once again, I turn to author Steven Kent to give you the 411: "To this day, the people who are attacking Night Trap really don't, to me, seem like they've played the game. They still talk about this game where you were killing co-eds, but you're not; you're saving co-eds."
Mr. Kent, you are absolutely right. The reason this game was targeted was due to a cut scene that played if the player failed to protect a co-ed. They would die, as one would expect from any ill-tempered vampire, but parents and officials claimed that excessive violence and rape were depicted. Ladies and gentlemen, it just ain't so!
Even after the confusion surrounding Night Trap began to dissipate, several political figures weren't able to let bygones be bygones, and one of the most influential of these figures was Australian Labor Senator Margaret Reynolds. In May of 1993, Senator Reynolds began campaigning for a type of ratings system to control the release of games in Australia such as Night Trap, which was the main example she used to advocate the need of such a system. By October of the same year, the Report on Video and Computer Games and Classification Issues was released, but most industry experts saw it as nothing more than a compilation of rampant conjecture.
You might say that Night Trap and Senator Reynolds were both responsible for getting the gears moving in terms of forcing people to consider a ratings system for video games. If Night Trap was the lighter, then it's safe to say Mortal Kombat was more than just fuel; it came with a little bit of nitro glycerin as well.
Game: Mortal Kombat
Platform: GB, Game Gear, Sega Genesis/CD, SNES... ah heck, everything at one point or another.
Developer/Publisher: Midway Games
Year released: 1992 (original)
"MMMOOOORRTAAALLLL KOOOMMMBAAAAT!" Remember that commercial? Just curious. Mortal Kombat was created by Midway Games in only five and a half months as a competitor for the hugely popular Street Fighter II, and in its own way, it succeeded. Mortal Kombat quickly became infamous for its brutal 'Fatalities', which a player could perform after beating his or her opponent in a best-of-three match scenario. Ripping out hearts, knocking off heads, pulling out a head with an attached spleen... yeah, MK was gory all right, and was pretty realistic looking due to its use of digitized actors. Did you know that originally, Jean-Claude Van Damme was going to play Johnny Cage? And did you know that if said event would have come to fruition, Mr. Van Damme might have something to be recognized for in the year 2005? Like, you know, besides Bloodsport?
But of course, Street Fighter was an awesome movie, so he's got that goin' for him.
Mortal Kombat can be credited with the creation of the ESRB ratings system, which was quickly initiated upon the game's release. The effectiveness of the system can be argued until we're all blue in the face, but for a while, it did seem to help keep the kiddies away from decapitations and Scorpion Spears.
The reason for the rampant gore and realistic graphics was, as previously stated, to lure crowds away from the cartoony graphics of Street Fighter II. While it was in arcades, there wasn't really much people could do about it. Just cover little Johnny's eyes and quickly walk in the opposite direction. But when the Kombat came home, the crap really hit the fan.
September 13th, 1993, "Mortal Monday", is a day that will live in awesomeness... if you were a Sega Genesis or Game Gear owner. This was the fateful day that Mortal Kombat came to consoles, and much to the dismay of Game Boy and Super NES owners everywhere, their versions were heavily edited. Sweat replaced blood, and cheesy fatalities such as Sub-Zero freezing his opponent then shattering them into tiny ice cubes replaced the much cooler rip-off-the-head-with-spleen fatality, probably the most popular fatality in arcades. Needless to say, the Sega Genesis version was the best-selling version of the popular arcade game by far, and even though Nintendo stuck by their decision, it wouldn't last long.
After the near riots by Nintendo fans around the globe, Midway, Acclaim and Nintendo all wised up and opted to release Mortal Kombat II with all the blood and gore intact, which caused the powerful Super NES hardware to put forth the arguably best version of the hard-hitting sequel.
Mortal Kombat wasn't left unscathed by the ratings system it inspired, however. Beginning with Mortal Kombat II and all the way until Mortal Kombat 4, Friendships and Babalities were introduced, a sort of minor acquiescence to the US Congressional Investigation for Violence in Videogames. It was MK4 that finally brought the series back to the dark roots that inspired it, and no Friendships or Babalities were mercifully present.
Read on for DOOM and some hot coffee
Developer/Publisher: id Software
Year released: 1993
Doom was the incredible successor to Wolfenstein 3D, and everything Wolf3D did, Doom did better... and bloodier. Many aspects of this legendary FPS were nicely realistic for its time which, given the advances in gaming technology, is what all gamers were clamoring for. The game quickly became popular due to the nonstop action it offered, the incredible visuals, the fun-to-use weaponry, and the scare factor of the game. I don't care what anyone says, those imps were scary as hell, man.
Doom is most infamous for gaining the attraction of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two youths who shot several of their classmates and teachers in Columbine High School in April of 1999. The media quickly latched onto the fact that Harris and Klebold were avid Doom players, who had even reconstructed a few floors of their school with one of Doom's many freely available level editing utilities. The Rocky Mountain Press reported on August 22, 1999, that Eric Harris's nickname, Reb, "was inspired by a character in one of his favorite computer games, Doom, where the goal is to score high body counts." Now I know Reb wasn't the protagonist of the game; I stand by the "Doomed Space Marine" moniker with pride, thank you very much, Mr. Nukem.
This is where I constantly find myself defending violent video games to ignorant people around the world. I've played Doom a whole heckuva lot. I'll admit it, I LOVE THAT GAME! And not once have I ever had the notion to buy a shotgun, lock and load, then go postal on anyone at anytime. It's. Just. A. Game.
Game: Grand Theft Auto (series)
Platform: PC, PS2, Xbox
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Years released: 2001, 2002, 2004
In the year 2005, no one video game is more synonymous with controversy than any of the Grand Theft Auto installments. While Grand Theft Auto and GTA 2 were definitely under the scrutinizing eyes of parents and political figures everywhere, it was the October 2001 release of Grand Theft Auto III for the PS2 that really lit a fire under video game ratings that hadn't been seen since the early days of MK and Doom.
Just about anything and everything in GTA 3 caused "adults" to shudder in repulsion while emitting an entirely different kind of shudder from video game fans everywhere. You could carjack anything on wheels, viciously kill people at random, but perhaps that most media-condemned act in the game was the act of allowing the player to pick up a prostitute, have sex with her, then kill her and retrieve your money afterwards. This latter act is probably the most media-cited amoral act in the entire game.
The game was banned entirely in Australia, which was the only country to take the censoring of the game that far. Wikipedia points out that "Interestingly, whilst the sequel Vice City was censored, the next sequel San Andreas was not... leading many to conclude that the only reason the game was banned in the first place was that the OFLC was angry at Rockstar for not submitting the game for review." Pretty surprising, considering that however tame you may or may not consider it to be, Hot Coffee is a lot more risquÃ© than anything GTA3 or Vice City offered in the sexual realm. It's one thing to see a car bounce up and down, clearly implying a sexual act; it's another thing entirely to see your girlfriend give you felatio, though as often-stated in the game's defense, no genitals (haven't said that word since the fifth grade) are shown.
Enduring slander that id Software could sympathize with, developer Rockstar Games and publisher Take Two Interactive faced a $246 million lawsuit by the families of Aaron Hamel and Kimberly Bede, two young folks gunned down by William and Josh Buckner; teenagers who claimed their actions were influenced by time spent playing GTA 3. Rockstar and Take Two filed a dismissal on the claim, which stated that "the ideas and concepts as well as the 'purported psychological effects' on the Buckners are protected by the First Amendment's free-speech clause." Oh, just in case you're curious, the lawyer representing the families of Aaron Hamel and Kimberly Bede is none other than Jack Thompson.
Four paragraphs into this, it's still only GTA 3! While Vice City certainly could be accused of the same problems that GTA 3 had, it had its own special lawsuit to deal with. In December of 2003, various Cuban and Haitian groups based in Florida targeted the title, alleging that content within the game encouraged players to harm immigrants from the two respective nations. The audio in question refers to members of a Haitian drug cartel in conflict with a rival gang, not every single Haitian ever conceived. In fact, Rockstar steadfastly states that the most famous line spouted by the media, "Kill all the Haitians", is not found anywhere in the game's script.
Well, that's all for Vice City. Hahahahaha yeah right. C'mon, this wouldn't be a GTA game without kids killing their peers and having their parents blame it on video games, would it? In February of 2005, another lawsuit was brought against Rockstar and Take Two Interactive. In 2003, the then 17 year old Devin Thompson shot and killed three members of the Alabama police force. His attorney claimed the influence of GTA 3 and Vice City compelled these shootings. Not surprisingly, Devin's parents agreed. Because really, why step up and take responsibility for your children when you've got a violent video game to blame?
Well unfortunately there's nothing else for Grand Theft Auto. As we're all well aware, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas departs from the past two GTA games in favor of the following: Carl "CJ" Johnson returns to the hood to bury his mother after five years spent in Liberty City. He becomes quite disturbed after witnessing scenes of random crimes and other inexcusable acts, so using his impressive powers of persuasion, CJ unites all the neighborhood gangs and everyone becomes best friends. The Ballas can often be seen hanging out on Grove Street, participating in barbecues and face painting contests, with all proceeds sent to children's hospitals scattered throughout the city.
Yeah right. This is GTA, and San Andreas is no exception. In fact, out of all the GTAs, many consider it to be the most infamous and easily one of the most controversial video games ever released. The reason? A simple cup of Hot Coffee.
In June 2005, a mod for the PC version of San Andreas was released entitled "Hot Coffee." The mod purportedly altered the game's codeÂ—yes, I know; that's what mods doÂ—to allow the player a starring role in a sexual intercourse mini-game. Ordinarily, CJ is invited into his girlfriend's house, sex is implied but not seen. This mod changed that, depicting crudely rendered scenes of felatio and various sexual positions. Not only were the scenes crudely rendered, both characters were clothed, (though CJ's girlfriend gave the player a peek at the hottest pixilated nipple I have ever seen! I jest, I jest) so no big deal, right? Well... not exactly.
Rockstar wasn't exactly honest about Hot Coffee to begin with. You see, from the very moment Hot Coffee was discovered, the alleged mod creator repeatedly stated that he did not modify the game's code; he simply "unlocked" code that was there in the first place. Rockstar repeatedly denied the allegation, and for a while, it seemed as if people believed them. After all, PC games are modded all the time; it's an integral part of their uniqueness. But then the PS2 version's Hot Coffee code was found, and the funny thing about optical media used for consoles: once you've written to the disc, no code can be changed. Oh, and it was found in the Xbox version as well. Busted, Rockstar.
On July 20th of the same year, San Andreas has its rating changed from "Mature" to "Adults Only," and consequently several major retail chains (Wal*Mart, Sears, Best Buy, GameStop, etc.) pulled the game from their shelves. On the week of September 12th 2005, a new "Mature" version of the game was released for the PS2 and Xbox, with the only major difference being the complete absence of Hot Coffee from the game's code. The PC version was also given a patch (dubbed Cold Coffee by many gamers) that removed the Hot Coffee "mod" code, and all is as it was. Yes folks, now gamers have gone back to happily slaughtering innocent bystanders, carjacking, and having sex with hookers then subsequently getting our hard
stolen earned money back. I mean, killing a kid to jack his bicycle is one thing, but having a healthy sexual relationship with your girlfriend? Buddy, that really crosses a line! I do have morals, jeez...
So now that you've finished reading this article, you may be asking yourself, "What was the point?" Well, I had a few points, really. First of all, gaming history is fun. It's fun to learn about how certain trends, movements, companies, games and the like got started, and let's face it, controversy has always been at the heart of video games.
Secondly, I wrote it to inspire some good-natured Shack debate. What do all of you think is the most controversial game of all time, and why? And also, do you agree with the controversy surrounding your chosen game? I'm very interested in discussing this with anyone who wants to chime in with an opinion, because topics such as this one really interest me and, I'm willing to bet, lots of other gamers worldwide.
Lastly, I wanted to give people something to think a little bit about. Now, the fact is, by publishing this article on a site such as Shacknews, I'm more or less preaching to the choir. You guys are all gamers, you know what's going on in the industry, and I'm in no way trying to talk down to anyone. But my goal here was to write a fun article on a topic that is, quite frankly, never going to go away. Yesterday it was Mortal Kombat, today it's Grand Theft Auto, and tomorrow... who can say?